Have you ever seen a piece of branded content, like a fun quiz, a really great article, or even an augmented reality experience, and wondered: who made that?

Well, today, we’re talking to the man behind the curtain, Chris Sweigart. As the Creative Director of GET Creative, our branded content studio, Chris and his team are behind some of the most innovative and exciting pieces of content out there. They’ve partnered with brands like Coca-Cola and Discover as well as local businesses across the U.S. to create content that follows their three pillars to inform, engage, and connect.

Chris, thanks so much for talking with us today. Tell our readers a little about you and what you do.

I’m the creative director for GET Creative for the USA TODAY NETWORK, and I work with our national, regional, and local clients to develop, produce and distribute their content.

So, what that means is my team works to identify a strategy for our clients based on their story and objectives and then brings that story to life through content like articles, videos, interactive infographics, and more.

My background is in journalism. I started my career as a television reporter in Georgia and then moved to the digital side as a part of a video production team for USA TODAY.

So, how did you make the jump from journalism to branded content?

I’ve been with Gannett for twelve years and I’ve been fortunate to forge my career here. A few years ago when Kelly Andresen was starting the branded content studio, I had an opportunity to meet with her and have some conversations that led to this opportunity. It was the right time for me to take on a new challenge, so I jumped on it, and I was really excited.

That’s awesome! Tell us a little about what your team does?

Most of the people on my team have backgrounds in journalism or in content marketing, so we’re really experienced and skilled storytellers at heart.

My team will work with our internal sales representatives to put together a strategy based on each individual client, their goals, and their unique story. Once the client is onboard, my team then executes on that strategy. We have video producers creating video content, content managers writing articles and infographics, and designers building interactive pieces.

It’s a really cool because we get to work on helping our clients define what their storytelling strategy is and how we can leverage content to achieve whatever their goals might be, and then we actually get to produce that content, too. I’m very fortunate to work with a team that is extraordinarily talented. They’re the best people that I’ve ever worked with.

And we’re very fortunate at GET Creative to really be a full-service team. While my team focuses on the creative strategy and content production, there is another side of the shop focused on the business and operations of branded content campaigns. That team, led by my colleague, Tiffanie Johnson, includes program managers and social media managers who make sure the content is promoted strategically and guide our clients through the branded content process.

So, your team is creating a lot of different content for a lot of different types of businesses. What would you say makes up a successful branded content piece?

The big answer to that is story. Whenever we’re producing a piece of branded content for an overall strategy, we try to align it to our three pillars: Inform, engage and connect.

We are, first and foremost, a news information platform. Our audience is made up of millions of people. So, first, we want to provide and create content that informs the audience and provides information that’s contextually relevant and useful in their lives.

The second thing we want to do is engage with the audience. We identify the type of story ““ is it fun, emotion, character-driven, direct, and so on. We want the type of story we tell to engage with the audience and resonate with them. Our focus on engaging the audience goes beyond the creative. Our program managers are also closely watching performance metrics throughout the campaign, continuously looking for opportunities to optimize performance ““ the users’ Attention time, in particular.

And the third thing that we do is connect our audience to our clients.

Once we have the opportunity to engage the audience and to deliver information that’s useful, we’re able to position the client as a partner that’s delivering impactful or fun information to their community, and connect the audience through organic mentions and links directly to the advertiser. Our program managers are also very adept and making sure the content is being promoted to the right, targeted audience so the content really has an opportunity to be successful.

I love the way you guys framed that!

Yeah. It’s a really an audience-first mentality. We think about what the audience actually wants and then try to deliver on that, which ends up being very valuable to the advertiser and the user.

What’s surprised you the most since you started working with this team?

I came from a background in journalism, and I majored in politics, not in marketing. So, I started learning about the marketing funnel, which is really basic stuff, but really important ““ top of funnel where it’s more awareness and bottom of funnel that really drives a user to take action. I think a lot of people assume that content is a top of funnel activity ““ it’s mainly driving awareness. But what I’ve seen with branded content is that we can couple it with other strategies, like display advertising or search marketing, to really become a bottom of funnel tactic. And we’re able to work with our internal teams to identify the right solution mix to help our clients reach their goals no matter where they fall in that funnel.

I know you’ve worked on a lot of exciting branded content campaigns, but what are some of your favorites?

This is hard. There are so many. Okay”¦I’ll pick a few.

There was some really cool virtual storytelling we did around Coca-Cola’s initiative to replace every drop of water they use in their products. They do that by helping to restore watersheds all over the world. In this particular story, we highlighted a project they were involved with on the Rio Grande River on the Texas-Mexico border. There was a certain species of grass that’s actually choking the Rio Grande River and restricting water flow. Coca-Cola had a hydrologist that started working there to help restore that watershed to make sure that the river continues to flow and has positive impacts throughout the region. And we got to tell that story in a really cool way.

We worked with Nature’s Way to bring the story of the ingredients in their supplements to life. Our team actually went to India to see where the basil for one of their supplements is farmed and followed it through production. We went to Austria to see where elderberry is grown and told the story of how it moved from farming through manufacturing. It was so inspiring to meet the farmers, and the people who are so passionate about their craft and their product and I think that passion really came through in the content.

Of our local partners, one of my favorites is Kitsap Garage Door Co. This business owner identified a knowledge gap in his community around scammers and provided content to help them. I love that story because I think that it speaks to an overall story of how businesses provide more than just products and services to their community. They’re sponsoring little league teams, they’re part of events, and they’re giving back. Not only do they want to sell their products and services, but they see an opportunity to truly serve their communities, like the owner of Kitsap Garage.

I loved that story, too! You guys have worked on some really awesome pieces. What are you looking forward to this year?

We’re really excited about continuing to grow in our local markets. Branded content can help local businesses reach an even wider audience and connect with that audience in a meaningful way. I think a lot of business owners think it’s unattainable from a price point or process standpoint, but it’s really not. I want to show them that it’s something they can definitely do, and we will be there to help.

On a national side, I’m excited about some of the campaigns we already have in the works. We’re developing an online game for a tourism client ““ it’s an interactive game that you can play on your phone or desktop, and it’s a new way to engage with the audience. We haven’t ever done it before, so I’m looking forward to seeing that succeed!

We’re trying to think about how we can be radical and push the envelope. How do we find new ways to tell stories? How to we continue to learn from the campaigns that we’ve run and the content that we’ve published to continue to evolve our products? What brands and advertisers have really compelling stories that need to be told, and how can we help them do that?

Want to learn more about branded content and how it could work for your business? Check out our website and our resources below. Then, give us a ring to get started.

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